Author Archives: Doug Hill

In Praise of the Counterpunchers

"Please, Sir. I want some more."

“Please, Sir. I want some more.”

The humanities are in retreat. For years science and technology have been running roughshod over the arts in the nation’s colleges and universities, a thrashing turning now into rout.

This is hardly news. For years a consistent string of news articles and commentaries have documented the humanities’ decline. An especially robust burst of coverage greeted the release last summer of “The Heart of the Matter,” an earnest series of recommendations and equally earnest short film produced under the auspices of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. (more…)

Home or Frontier? On the Ambiguity of “Gravity”

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The film Gravity is having an especially strong run at the box office, and it seems to be having an especially powerful impact on those who have seen it. It’s certainly a beautiful movie, visually, and an unusual one, as far as big-budget Hollywood attractions go. For anyone who thinks a lot about technology, as I do, the film has some interesting, though somewhat ambiguous, messages.

Be forewarned: What follows is all spoiler.

Technology gone wrong plays a central role in Gravity. The film also resonates with a theme that’s central to the technological project: the drive to open new frontiers. This is not to say that either of those subjects is the principal concern of Gravity’s director and co-writer, Alfonso Cuarón. His interests lie elsewhere, as I’ll explain. Still, when you make a saga about human beings in space, questions of technology and frontiers are hard to avoid. (more…)

Annals of Childish Behavior (Technological imperative edition)

aaa -- minnesota bridgeI remember hearing somewhere that one of the most important things you can teach a child is to delay gratification.

Give a five-year-old a choice between a cookie on the table in front of him right now and two cookies 15 minutes from now, and chances are he’ll take the one cookie right now. Maturity is about learning to live within your means. You want something nice, you save up for it. You resist blowing your entire paycheck on bling so that when the first of the month comes you have enough money to cover the rent.

It’s obvious that the consumer economy wants us to ignore these basic principles. (more…)

Has Morality Become a Skeuomorph?

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An early strategy for making new technology feel familiar

I was thinking this morning about two subjects that don’t usually go together, skeuomorphs and morality.

A skeuomorph is a design element applied to a product that looks as if it’s functional but really isn’t. Its real purpose is to evoke a sense of familiarity and comfort. The literary critic N. Katherine Hayles cites as an example the dashboard of her Toyota Camry, which is made of synthetic plastic molded to look as if it’s stitched fabric.

Software designers use lots of skeuomorphs for their user interfaces; examples include the “pages” that seem to “turn” in e-readers and word processing programs. Hayles calls skeuomorphs “threshold devices.” They “stitch together past and future,” she says, “reassuring us that even as some things change, others persist.” (more…)

Hello Robots, Goodbye Fry Cooks

Given that we’re not in the habit of thinking too much where our technological passions might lead us, I’ve been heartened over the past year to see an unusual willingness to confront the potentially devastating impact of the robotics revolution on human employment.

It was a question that was hard to avoid, given the global recession and the widening gap between rich and poor. It’s obvious that rapid advances in automation are offering employers ever-increasing opportunities to drive up productivity and profits while keeping ever-fewer employees on the payroll. It’s obvious as well that those opportunities will continue to increase in the future. (more…)

11 Good Reasons Why Google Owes Nothing in Taxes

Bloomberg News reported earlier this weekthat Google used creative accounting to avoid paying something like $2 billion in corporate income taxes this year.

Much of that savings was realized by funneling nearly $10 billion in profits to shell companies in Bermuda, which has no corporate income tax. Like other multinationals, Google uses maneuvers such as the “Double Irish” and the “Dutch Sandwich” to get its revenues safely out of the countries in which they’re made, relatively untouched. By doing so, Bloomberg says, the company was able to cut its overall tax rate nearly in half. (more…)

Protest Dreams

Brad Pitt’s latest movie, which opens today, is being described as an attack on capitalism, at least as it’s currently practiced in America.

When “Killing Them Softly” premiered at Cannes last spring, an article in the Los Angeles Times called it a “post-Occupy” film and “what the documentary ‘Inside Job’ might look like if it was a fictional feature.”

“Inside Job,” you may recall, is director Charles Ferguson’s Oscar-winning examination of how Wall Street speculation and duplicity led to our current economic crisis. The action in “Killing Them Softly” takes place during the stock and housing market crashes that got the current crisis rolling; visible in the background are clips of presidential candidates Obama and McCain making promises (still unfulfilled) of economic reform. Director Andrew Dominik’s underlying theme, according to the Times, “is that U.S. capitalism is deeply flawed, and that government, whether Democrat or Republican, has let down its people.” (more…)

Everything is Connected (Petraeus Scandal Edition)

As many have noted, technology – specifically, email accounts – played a central role in the ongoing scandal involving the resignation of CIA Director David Petraeus. “Harassing” emails sent to socialite Jill Kelley led to the FBI’s discovery of emails that revealed Petraeus’ affair with Paula Broadwell; other emails led to the discovery of questionable exchanges between Kelly and another top-ranking official, General John R. Allen; subsequent searches found classified documents on the hard drives of individuals who weren’t authorized to have them.

With the indispensible assistance of the media, reverberations have been ricocheting furiously up and down the corridors of power and gossip from Washington and Langley to Florida, Afghanistan, and Libya since the scandal broke last Friday. It’s not the first time these elements have combined to produce a sensation, but it’s the messiest we’ve seen lately. (more…)

On Immovable Technologies

There are some Big Ideas in the philosophy of technology that I find very helpful in understanding what’s going on in the world of machines today. One of those ideas is a concept known as “technological momentum.”

Technological momentum is a phrase coined by the historian Thomas Parke Hughes to describe the tendency of successful technological systems to become entrenched over time, growing increasingly resistant to change. This resistance is a product of both physical and psychological commitments. We invest materially in factories and emotionally in careers. Equipment and infrastructure accumulate and intertwine; dependence and force of habit build. (more…)

Technological Autonomy: Greasing the rails to Armageddon

There are any number of ways to frame the apocalypse, I suppose. As one who spends a lot of time thinking about technology, mine is a phenomenon known as “technological autonomy.”

I’m convinced that technological autonomy may be the single most important problem ever to face our species and the planet as a whole. A huge statement, obviously, but there’s plenty of recent evidence to back it up.

Briefly stated, technological autonomy describes a condition in which we’re no longer in control of our technologies: they now function autonomously. This isn’t as absurd as it may sound. The idea isn’t that we can’t switch a given machine from “on” to “off.” Rather, technological autonomy acknowledges the fact that we have become so personally, economically, and socially committed to our devices that we couldn’t survive without them. (more…)